Students solving mysteries in Shepherdstown graveyards

February 21, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Keith D. Alexander is a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Shepherd University. Students in his Introduction to Historic Preservation class are assisting with researching and archiving gravestones at Shepherdstown, W.Va.-area cemeteries. The information is also sent to the states Division of Culture and History in Charleston, W.Va., where it becomes public domain.
By Richard F. Belisle/Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — “Here is where the weary are resting,
From toil and care and pain,
No sickness or destroying death
Shall trouble him again”

This epitaph over the grave of Thomas Shepherd III, grandson of the founder of Shepherdstown, who died Nov. 9, 1832, at age 58, is in the Shepherd family graveyard adjacent to the Episcopal parsonage on New Street.

Shepherd’s gravestone is among dozens in three town cemeteries that have been and are being found, cleaned, mapped and their inscriptions transcribed into a database. The project has been going on since 2007 with the help of students in Keith D. Alexander’s Introduction to Historic Preservation class.

Alexander, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, said his students have been working on projects in the Shepherd family graveyard, in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church graveyard on East German Street and in the Christ Reformed Church burial ground across East German Street from the Lutheran graveyard.

The students meet with the church congregations to explain the work they performed and provide the church memberships with maps locating gravestones and a database with their inscriptions.

The information is also sent to the state’s Division of Culture and History in Charleston, W.Va., where it becomes public domain, Alexander said.

“It’s awesome,” said Jamie Stoner, a junior, of working in cemeteries. “Reading an epitaph is like reading a little piece about someone’s life.”

Her favorite was a little mid-18th century sandstone headstone with an inscription in German.

“I liked it, but I had no idea what it said,” Stoner said.

The students said gravestone inscriptions from the 18th and 19th centuries are “more poetic, more personal, more touching” than those found on modern headstones.

“The interest in that kind of writing is gone today,” said Heidi Carbaugh, a senior whose specialty is transcribing inscriptions.

Lilly Phipps, a graduate student at Shepherd, remembers the epitaph of a man who died mentioning his “consort.”

“It was a mystery,” she said. “We discussed it in class about whether it was written for his wife or his mistress. It shows how the meanings of words have changed.”

Students interested in history and historic preservation take Alexander’s class.

“Cemeteries are great outdoor labs and gravestones are a jumping-off place to learn about life in an area,” Alexander said.

Cleaning headstones gives students “instant gratification because they can see the results of their work,” he said.

Most markers in old graveyards are marble or softer sandstone, he said.

The students start by cleaning them with plain water and a soft-bristle brush. They add mild dishwashing soap if needed. Tougher jobs require one part ammonia to four parts water to get a stone clean, Alexander said.

“We never use anything stronger than what is needed,” he said. “We don’t use wire brushes, bleach or shaving cream, which degrades the stone.”

He said cleaning gravestones is effective, but it does not preserve them.

“We can only slow down the rate of decay and document them,” Alexander said.

Alexander teaches environmental studies, German, history and historic preservation.

“The three pillars of historic preservation are history, architecture and archaeology,” he said.

Historic preservation is important for ecological, economic and patriotic reasons. It protects national and community identities, he said.

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